Unstable gasoline prices and troubled airlines are causing Americans to consider more closely the option of traveling by Amtrak. During an era when green technology is popular and fuel economy counts, the railroads can meet the challenge. A diesel-electric locomotive is efficient and can move a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel, according to the Association of American Railroads. A train utilizes technology similar to hybrid electric vehicles. “Hands down, traveling by rail is the most fuel-efficient and least-carbon-intensive way you can go,” says Nancy Kete, director of the World Resource Institute Center for Sustainable Transport. In addition, railroads such as Eastern Washington are experimenting with biodiesel to see if the fuel is feasible. Combining mass transit, hybrid technology, and biodiesel would help ease the United State’s dependence on foreign oil.

Amtrak and many commuter rail lines are trying to grab the moment by using environmental friendliness to appeal to new riders and the taxpayers who fund the system. Over the past two years, Amtrak’s ridership has increased almost 17 percent nationwide. Furthermore, the recent spike in gasoline prices had many long-distance trains filled to capacity on some routes. A considerable funding package for improvements is currently being debated in Washington, and Amtrak is already exploring ways to enhance service along popular routes. However, getting the rail system up to speed will be a political and economic challenge.


Amtrak Genesis Locomotive. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Starting in the 1950s, America’s interstate highway system and love of the automobile contributed to a gradual deterioration of its railroads. Conversely, Europe and parts of Asia have been investing in fast and comfortable long distance trains. However, duplicating foreign type passenger systems in the United States is not simple. Private freight railroads including CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe own most of the tracks Amtrak uses. An expansion of the railroads would require hundreds of billions of dollars in new infrastructure and decades of eminent domain lawsuits to acquire private lands. “We never invested in quality passenger rail travel like other countries,” says Joseph Sussman, a professor of engineering and systems at MIT. “It’s almost impossible that the American network could ever be able to mirror those ultra-efficient models around the world.”

An expansive new rail system may not be currently doable, but the recent increased interest does signal hope for Amtrak to grow, especially along routes between cities that are too close to fly and too long and pricey to drive. A few hundred million dollars in improvements could bring certain routes to acceptable levels, according to Amtrak. Routes connecting Chicago to St. Paul, Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., and San Diego to Los Angeles could replicate the speedy transit of the prized Northeast Corridor, where sleek trains running on newer tracks allow speeds up to 150 miles per hour in some zones, according to . T rains could also run faster with newer signals installed at crossroads to stop traffic earlier. Improving station conditions in rural areas would also make the service feel more comfortable and contemporary.

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